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MHS grad’s TV series debuts Nov. 17

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Kate Arrington and Cliff Chamberlain in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of “Belleville.”

Photo contributed/

POSTED May 29, 2014 2:05 a.m.

Get ready to meet Kurt Tannen, a quirky Central Intelligence Agency linguist Monday nights this November.

He’s a cast character on a new NBC drama dubbed “State of Affairs” debuting Nov. 17 at 10 p.m.

Tannen may look familiar to you if you walked the halls of Manteca High between 1994 and 1997. It’s because the lanky actor with the quick wit is Cliff Chamberlain.

One of his last public appearances in Manteca was 17 years ago this week when he had graduates and guests alike cheering at Guss Schmiedt Field as he delivered his   off-the-cuff “There’s no party like a Buffalo party” speech as Manteca High senior class president.

“I had a general outline of what I wanted to say but I basically winged it,” Chamberlain said of his 1997 graduation speech. It was spontaneous, It came from the heart. I loved my school and I loved my classmates.”

Today, Chamberlain is living in Chicago with his wife Robyn and daughter Everly. He’s been making a full-time living acting since 2009 when his large assortment of W-2 forms each year were no longer peppered with occupations such as waiter. Instead they finally all read “actor.”

“It was a huge moment,” Chamberlain recalled. “I was making a living as an actor.”

He noted that jobs waiting tables paid fairly well but his heart wasn’t into it.

”Whenever they’d say they needed to lay someone off, I’d be the first person to volunteer,” Chamberlain said. “I figured it gave me a chance to spend more time getting ready for auditions. . . . I’d show up for auditions an hour early but I’d never show up early working as a waiter,”

Chamberlain has been honing his acting skills in the rich Chicago theatre scene. Along the way he performed with a Shakespearean company in Virginia, launched a theater company with several friends has acted in a variety of stage roles, and has dabbled in TV shows and commercials. “State of Affairs” is his first role as a reoccurring character in a network series.

• • •

Acting bug bite him at New Haven

Hints of Chamberlain’s future as a performer started surfacing not long after his Terrible Twos. He used to grab honey spoons and used them as a pseudo microphone to sing “Take Me out to the Ball Game” when parents Brian and Sharyn had guests.

The first time Chamberlain realized he was bitten by the proverbial acting bug was as a student at New Haven School.

“I don’t remember the name of the play, but it was one that had an Earth Day theme,” Chamberlain recalled.

Chamberlain said his decision to study theater at the University of California, Santa Barbara “stunned” a number of his teachers.

“I really wasn’t known for being into acting in high school,” Chamberlain said.

It may also had to do something with the fact Chamberlain was never too comfortable in small groups of three or so people. But when he gets in front of larger groups he’s in his element.

“I’m real comfortable talking to a 1,000 people,” Chamberlain said.

• • •

Passion for acting only topped by his family

He ended up in Chicago after a stint in Virginia as he had friends there, he did not want to go to Los Angeles, and he knew living was too expensive in New York City.

Chicago may be a ways from Broadway and farther from Hollywood but it has a well-deserved reputation for a rich live theatre scene.

Before he become involved with established Chicago theatres such as Steppenwolf and Goodman, Chamberlain and his friends launched their own independent company.

The first production in Chicago was “Paper Dreams and Plastic Promises,” a one-man play he wrote and acted in at UCSB and then staged after graduation at numerous locations across the country including Manteca, Stockton, and Santa Barbara.

“It was a colossal failure,” Chamberlain recalled. “At the time it got the absolute worst review for a play in Chicago . . . No one showed up the next night. I learned a lot. It was a huge dose of humility.”

Chamberlain also has commercial and TV appearances under his belt on shows such as Chicago PD but the gig on NBC is the first as an ongoing character in a network series.

His passion for acting is only superseded by his passion for his family.

He met his future bride on MySpace in 2006 through the urging of mutual friends. It turned out in the real world they lived just a matter of blocks from each other.

A doting father and devoted husband, Chamberlain said having a family has changed his outlook. While acting and “talking” to an audience has always thrilled him, he said it is even greater satisfaction knowing he is doing it now “to help support my family.”


And while his wife Robyn has a steady, traditional 9 to 5 job, being an actor still means watching the budget with frugal being a way of life.

“I eat a peanut butter and honey sandwich everyday for lunch,” Chamberlain. “I’ve been doing that for seven years. I learned to live frugally.”

Chamberlain said he strives to arrive for auditions early, make sure he knows his lines, has well researched the character and play and works diligently to connect with the reader — the person that says the line of other characters during an audition.

He’s not an actor that can paint a broad brush with a character such as Will Ferrell or the cast of Saturday Night Live as examples. Instead he builds on his strengths in roles that flow seamlessly into others on the stage.

As such, he strives to make it possible for audiences to learn from the characters he portrays.

And even though he has a dozen years as a professional actor on his resume, he admits prior to stepping on stage or before a camera he still has a fear of failing.

“That’s a good thing,” Chamberlain said as it drives him to do everything possible to make sure he nails his character.

“If people leave (from a play I’m in) with one thing it’s being able to answer their questions (about his character),” he said.

Becoming a fulltime actor isn’t an easy path to take.

He said the key to his success — and for any other high school graduate embarking on “life”   — is to “do what you want to do, be diligent , put time into it, be energetic and figure out a way to make it happen.”

Chamberlain said he appreciates his parents’ support as well as his brother Travis who is now in Hawaii working for a resort company.

“I love Manteca,” Chamberlain said. “It was an amazing 18 years (that will always be a part of me).”

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